THE UNTOLD LIE
BY SHERWOOD ANDERSON
Ray Pearson and Hal Winters were farm hands employed
on a farm three miles north of Winesburg. On Saturday
afternoons they came into town and wandered about
through the streets with other fellows from the
Ray was a quiet, rather nervous man of perhaps fifty
with a brown beard and shoulders rounded by too much
and too hard labor. In his nature he was as unlike
Hal Winters as two men can be unlike.
Ray was an altogether serious man and had a little
sharp-featured wife who had also a sharp voice. The
two, with half a dozen thin-legged children, lived
in a tumble-down frame house beside a creek at the
back end of the Wills farm where Ray was employed.
Hal Winters, his fellow employee, was a young fellow.
He was not of the Ned Winters family, who were very
respectable people in Winesburg, but was one of the
three sons of the old man called Windpeter Winters
who had a sawmill near Unionville, six miles away,
and who was looked upon by everyone in Winesburg as
a confirmed old reprobate.
People from the part of Northern Ohio in which
Winesburg lies will remember old Windpeter by his
unusual and tragic death. He got drunk one evening
in town and started to drive home to Unionville along
the railroad tracks. Henry Brattenburg, the butcher,
who lived out that way, stopped him at the edge of
the town and told him he was sure to meet the down
train but Windpeter slashed at him with his whip and
drove on. When the train struck and killed him and
his two horses a farmer and his wife who were driving
home along a nearby road saw the accident. They said
that old Windpeter stood up on the seat of his wagon,
raving and swearing at the onrushing locomotive, and
that he fairly screamed with delight when the team,
maddened by his incessant slashing at them, rushed
straight ahead to certain death. Boys like young
George Willard and Seth Richmond will remember the
incident quite vividly because, although everyone
in our town said that the old man would go straight
to hell and that the community was better off without
him, they had a secret conviction that he knew what
he was doing and admired his foolish courage. Most
boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously
instead of just being grocery clerks and going on
with their humdrum lives.
But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor
yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with
Ray Pearson. It is Ray's story. It will, however, be
necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you
will get into the spirit of it.
Hal was a bad one. Everyone said that. There were
three of the Winters boys in that family, John, Hal,
and Edward, all broad-shouldered big fellows like old
Windpeter himself and all fighters and woman-chasers
and generally all-around bad ones.
Hal was the worst of the lot and always up to some
devilment. He once stole a load of boards from his
father's mill and sold them in Winesburg. With the
money he bought himself a suit of cheap, flashy
clothes. Then he got drunk and when his father came
raving into town to find him, they met and fought
with their fists on Main Street and were arrested
and put into jail together.
Hal went to work on the Wills farm because there
was a country school teacher out that way who had
taken his fancy. He was only twenty-two then but
had already been in two or three of what were spoken
of in Winesburg as "women scrapes." Everyone who
heard of his infatuation for the school teacher
was sure it would turn out badly. "He'll only get
her into trouble, you'll see," was the word that
And so these two men, Ray and Hal, were at work in a
field on a day in the late October. They were husking
corn and occasionally something was said and they
laughed. Then came silence. Ray, who was the more
sensitive and always minded things more, had chapped
hands and they hurt. He put them into his coat pockets
and looked away across the fields. He was in a sad,
distracted mood and was affected by the beauty of the
country. If you knew the Winesburg country in the fall
and how the low hills are all splashed with yellows
and reds you would understand his feeling. He began to
think of the time, long ago when he was a young fellow
living with his father, then a baker in Winesburg, and
how on such days he had wandered away into the woods
to gather nuts, hunt rabbits, or just to loaf about
and smoke his pipe. His marriage had come about through
one of his days of wandering. He had induced a girl who
waited on trade in his father's shop to go with him
and something had happened. He was thinking of that
afternoon and how it had affected his whole life when
a spirit of protest awoke in him. He had forgotten
about Hal and muttered words. "Tricked by Gad, that's
what I was, tricked by life and made a fool of," he
said in a low voice.
As though understanding his thoughts, Hal Winters spoke
up. "Well, has it been worth while? What about it, eh?
What about marriage and all that?" he asked and then
laughed. Hal tried to keep on laughing but he too was
in an earnest mood. He began to talk earnestly. "Has
a fellow got to do it?" he asked. "Has he got to be
harnessed up and driven through life like a horse?"
Hal didn't wait for an answer but sprang to his feet
and began to walk back and forth between the corn
shocks. He was getting more and more excited. Bending
down suddenly he picked up an ear of the yellow corn
and threw it at the fence. "I've got Nell Gunther in
trouble," he said. "I'm telling you, but you keep your
Ray Pearson arose and stood staring. He was almost a
foot shorter than Hal, and when the younger man came
and put his two hands on the older man's shoulders
they made a picture. There they stood in the big
empty field with the quiet corn shocks standing in
rows behind them and the red and yellow hills in the
distance, and from being just two indifferent workmen
they had become all alive to each other. Hal sensed
it and because that was his way he laughed. "Well,
old daddy," he said awkwardly, "come on, advise me.
I've got Nell in trouble. Perhaps you've been in
the same fix yourself. I know what everyone would
say is the right thing to do, but what do you say?
Shall I marry and settle down? Shall I put myself
into the harness to be worn out like an old horse?
You know me, Ray. There can't anyone break me but
I can break myself. Shall I do it or shall I tell
Nell to go to the devil? Come on, you tell me.
Whatever you say, Ray, I'll do."
Ray couldn't answer. He shook Hal's hands loose and
turning walked straight away toward the barn. He was
a sensitive man and there were tears in his eyes. He
knew there was only one thing to say to Hal Winters,
son of old Windpeter Winters, only one thing that
all his own training and all the beliefs of the
people he knew would approve, but for his life he
couldn't say what he knew he should say.
At half-past four that afternoon Ray was puttering
about the barnyard when his wife came up the lane
along the creek and called him. After the talk with
Hal he hadn't returned to the cornfield but worked
about the barn. He had already done the evening chores
and had seen Hal, dressed and ready for a roistering
night in town, come out of the farmhouse and go into
the road. Along the path to his own house he trudged
behind his wife, looking at the ground and thinking.
He couldn't make out what was wrong. Every time he
raised his eyes and saw the beauty of the country
in the failing light he wanted to do something he
had never done before, shout or scream or hit his
wife with his fists or something equally unexpected
and terrifying. Along the path he went scratching
his head and trying to make it out. He looked hard
at his wife's back but she seemed all right.
She only wanted him to go into town for groceries and
as soon as she had told him what she wanted began to
scold. "You're always puttering," she said. "Now I
want you to hustle. There isn't anything in the house
for supper and you've got to get to town and back in
Ray went into his own house and took an overcoat from
a hook back of the door. It was torn about the pockets
and the collar was shiny. His wife went into the
bedroom and presently came out with a soiled cloth
in one hand and three silver dollars in the other.
Somewhere in the house a child wept bitterly and a dog
that had been sleeping by the stove arose and yawned.
Again the wife scolded. "The children will cry and cry.
Why are you always puttering?" she asked.
Ray went out of the house and climbed the fence into a
field. It was just growing dark and the scene that lay
before him was lovely. All the low hills were washed
with color and even the little clusters of bushes in
the corners of the fences were alive with beauty. The
whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive
with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become
alive when they stood in the corn field staring into
each other's eyes.
The beauty of the country about Winesburg was too much
for Ray on that fall evening. That is all there was to
it. He could not stand it. Of a sudden he forgot all
about being a quiet old farm hand and throwing off
the torn overcoat began to run across the field. As
he ran he shouted a protest against his life, against
all life, against everything that makes life ugly.
"There was no promise made," he cried into the empty
spaces that lay about him. "I didn't promise my Minnie
anything and Hal hasn't made any promise to Nell.
I know he hasn't. She went into the woods with him
because she wanted to go. What he wanted she wanted.
Why should I pay? Why should Hal pay? Why should anyone
pay? I don't want Hal to become old and worn out. I'll
tell him. I won't let it go on. I'll catch Hal before
he gets to town and I'll tell him."
Ray ran clumsily and once he stumbled and fell down.
"I must catch Hal and tell him," he kept thinking,
and although his breath came in gasps he kept running
harder and harder. As he ran he thought of things that
hadn't come into his mind for years--how at the time
he married he had planned to go west to his uncle in
Portland, Oregon--how he hadn't wanted to be a farm
hand, but had thought when he got out West he would go
to sea and be a sailor or get a job on a ranch and ride
a horse into Western towns, shouting and laughing and
waking the people in the houses with his wild cries.
Then as he ran he remembered his children and in fancy
felt their hands clutching at him. All of his thoughts
of himself were involved with the thoughts of Hal and
he thought the children were clutching at the younger
man also. "They are the accidents of life, Hal," he
cried. "They are not mine or yours. I had nothing to
do with them."
Darkness began to spread over the fields as Ray
Pearson ran on and on. His breath came in little
sobs. When he came to the fence at the edge of the
road and confronted Hal Winters, all dressed up and
smoking a pipe as he walked jauntily along, he could
not have told what he thought or what he wanted.
Ray Pearson lost his nerve and this is really the end
of the story of what happened to him. It was almost
dark when he got to the fence and he put his hands on
the top bar and stood staring. Hal Winters jumped a
ditch and coming up close to Ray put his hands into
his pockets and laughed. He seemed to have lost his own
sense of what had happened in the corn field and when
he put up a strong hand and took hold of the lapel of
Ray's coat he shook the old man as he might have shaken
a dog that had misbehaved.
"You came to tell me, eh?" he said. "Well, never mind
telling me anything. I'm not a coward and I've already
made up my mind." He laughed again and jumped back
across the ditch. "Nell ain't no fool," he said. "She
didn't ask me to marry her. I want to marry her. I
want to settle down and have kids."
Ray Pearson also laughed. He felt like laughing at
himself and all the world.
As the form of Hal Winters disappeared in the dusk
that lay over the road that led to Winesburg, he
turned and walked slowly back across the fields to
where he had left his torn overcoat. As he went some
memory of pleasant evenings spent with the thin-legged
children in the tumble-down house by the creek must
have come into his mind, for he muttered words. "It's
just as well. Whatever I told him would have been
a lie," he said softly, and then his form also
disappeared into the darkness of the fields.